Appointment in Samarra: Studies in Self-Deception

Dissertation, University of Toronto (Canada) (1996)

The philosophical issues raised by the phenomenon of self-deception fall into either of two groups. Insofar as self-deception raises questions about belief , self-deception may be understood to pose an epistemic problem, one with implications for the philosophy of mind. Alternatively, insofar as self-deception is something which by all reports one ought to avoid, and indeed, we have a moral obligation to avoid, self-deception may be understood to be a problem in ethics. My primary concern is with the moral status of self-deception. In particular I consider the following questions: What sort of moral problem does self-deception pose? and, does self-deception pose a special problem for ethics? To the end of sorting through these questions I consider Augustine's and Rousseau's respective Confessions, relevant elements of Freud's psychoanalytic theory, and Kant's brief but compelling account of self-deception. I suggest that it is helpful to think of self-deception as an unintentional consequence of coming to hold a belief, and so we may think of the moral problem of self-deception as an instance of the more general question of under what conditions may we hold people responsible for unintended consequences of their actions. Answering this question in the context of the problem of self-deception shows us the sense in which the phenomenon poses a special problem for ethics. The injunction "avoid self deception" and its correlate "know thyself" are perfectly intelligible. However, unlike rules such as "act so as to maximize happiness," we cannot conceive of the conditions under which we can verify whether in fact we have followed them
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